NEW YORK – Auto makers selling vehicles in the U.S. are finding the exclusive credit cards they issue not only create new profit centers but also boost loyalty to their brands and franchised dealers.

Chrysler Group, General Motors Corp. and BMW AG, are among a host of car makers that have signed up thousands of customers for credit-card programs. Additionally, Toyota Motor Corp.’s Lexus luxury division and BMW’s Mini brand have started similar programs.

Mercedes, Volkswagen, Audi and Subaru brands also offer credit cards with a variety of options.

Chrysler particularly is pleased with its results. Holders of the Chrysler Rewards Visa credit card have charged $78.7 million since 2001 at Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge dealers.

In return, these customers have redeemed more than $9 million in rewards. Chrysler Financial offers its card in partnership with Bank of America Corp.

"This is a program with nothing but value," Kelly Mankin, vice president Chrysler brands marketing for Chrysler Financial, tells Ward's, noting more than 3 million drivers lease or finance through Chrysler Financial.

"Customers gain value by accumulating rewards while maintaining their vehicle,” he says. “The points structure will help keep these purchases at our franchised dealerships.

Each dollar charged on general purchases with the card equals one rewards point, while every dollar charged at a participating dealership equals five rewards points, Mankin notes.

Customers use the dedicated Visa card for down payments on new vehicles; purchases of new or certified pre-owned vehicles; parts service contracts and accessories.

Cardholders also can make monthly payments to Chrysler Financial and pay over-mileage charges at the end of leases. Since 2001, these customers have redeemed certificates for $6.8 million for service and parts. Another $1.7 million has been redeemed for down payments on new Chrysler Group vehicles.

The card "plays a major role in building brand loyalty," Mankin says. "The program provides customers with solid reasons to continue shopping at a Chrysler Group dealership throughout the life of their vehicle, which means there is an even greater chance they will stay there for their next vehicle."

An outstanding rewards points portfolio of some $20 million means Chrysler Group dealers should continue being rewarded by this program well into the future, he says. Chrysler Financial supplies financial services to 2,600 dealers in North America, including Mexico. It also provides dealers with lines of credit.

GM was the first auto maker to offer a credit card in 1992. Over the last 15 years, the 6 million holders of the GM Flexible Earnings Master Card have redeemed an average of $1,300 toward payments for new GM vehicles. A total 5 million redemptions have involved new-vehicle purchases to date.

"We definitely think it's worthwhile," a GM spokeswoman says. "It brings in new customers.

The auto maker offers three types of cards. The first is a flexible-earnings card offering a cash-back feature. Cardholders can choose to have 1% of reward earnings redeemed in cash for payments on parts and service or triple base earnings (or 3%) toward the purchase of eligible GM vehicles.

Next is the extended family card, issued to employees, employee family members and supplier personnel. The third is the GM business card that is issued to proprietors of small businesses.

The GM credit card has no annual fee and usually is sold by direct-mail solicitation. Customers also can apply online or at GM dealerships.

BMW Financial Services President Edward A. Robinson says his company has issued 135,000 BMW and 10,000 Mini credit cards to date. Both brands feature Visa cards issued by BMW's own bank.

The dedicated Mini card offers a high degree of customization. Customers can design their cards with a Web-based configurator, creating the image they desire on the face of the card.

"Mini motorists revel in the fact that no two Mini vehicles are exactly the same, so why should their Mini credit card be any different?" Robinson says.

In addition, both credit cards offer many different ways to use the rewards earned through purchases. Cardholders can donate points to their favorite charities or transfer the points to someone else.

"The cards say something about the holders," Robinson says. "The BMW card shows that this is a person who enjoys performance, service and quality. On the other hand, the individuality of the Mini card reveals holders who are young at heart.”

The rewards program gives cardholders of either brand 1 point for every dollar they charge and 2 points for all motoring-related purchases, including gasoline, car washes and road tolls.

Cash-back rewards come with the purchase of a Mini, and there's even more cash back if the car is financed through the brand's own financial services division. However, the BMW and Mini cards don't require owning one of the brands.

The cards are a profitable business for BMW, "but it's not all about profit," Robinson says. "We track where our cards are used and (are convinced) they build loyalty and affinity for our brands."

Lexus is relatively new to the credit-card business, issuing the Lexus Pursuits Visa card in June 2005. More than 25,000 cards have been distributed since then. The Lexus card gives five reward points for every dollar spent at a brand dealership and 1.5 points on other purchases.

The points can be used toward purchase of parts, service and boutique items. Cardholders also can use points for up to 10% of the purchase of a new Lexus. The Lexus cards are issued through the Toyota Savings Bank.

A Lexus spokeswoman says dealers are seeing a benefit because customers visit the franchise stores more often.